Sunday, November 30, 2014

Early lessons from the Dracula Dossier -- Improvisational Campaign Design

In a previous post, I noted the exciting kickstarter campaign for the Dracula Dossier for the RPG Night's Black Agents.  This book (really three books now) provides the material needed to run a contemporary campaign to uncover a long running conspiracy connecting Dracula to the British secret service.  I will leave it to the kickstarter page to describe the setting in more detail.  For now, I want to describe some lessons of the draft document (offered to most backers at around $40 or higher pledges who get the ebooks).  Specifically, I will discuss what we can learn from the "improvisational" nature of the campaign and how it can inform Cypher System design.

Nodes Globes -- Dan Zen=(Flikr)

The Dracula Dossier is intended as an improvisational campaign.  This approach was introduced in Robin Laws' Armitage Files for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG (I have purchased the PDF but have not read it yet -- so this discussion comes solely from my reading of the Dracula Dossier draft material).  The goal of an improvisational campaign is to change what you expect to see from a campaign adventure book.  In a typical campaign book (e.g. Dark Spiral or the Devil's Spine for The Strange and Numenera respectively -- but also the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil for DnD 3E or the more recent Hoard and Rise of Tiamat for DnD 5e), potential game masters are provided a series of encounters to present to the players.  The encounters are likely quite detailed and feed into a specific storyline.  Many campaigns provide a series of side-quests but the central storyline has to remain coherent to ensure that player actions don't render later encounters (especially the climax of the campaign) inappropriate.  This has led to criticisms that any printed campaign is, by its nature, a railroad structure.  

The improvisational campaign is intended to address this problem.  The book provides several potential sequences of events -- but these are not the central point.  Instead, the book focuses on defining detailed NPCs, locations, and nodes (think "organizations").  For each of these elements, the book provides multiple potential uses.  Lets say the players encounter a descendant of Van Helsing, the descendent can play several roles: (1) a potential ally, (2) a potential antagonist who is working for Dracula, or (3) a potential antagonist who is working to control Dracula but does not care for the players intruding in his work.  When the NPC appears, the DM simply chooses one of these that best fits the story the group is telling.  The same is the case for each location (What is really going on there?  Well, it could be several things.)  and each organization.  

There is a great deal to learn from this approach to campaign design.  The core documents of the Dracula Dossier provide the pieces that the GM can use to put together a campaign -- rather than a fully constructed puzzle.  This allows the GM the freedom to build as she goes.  She could start with a few locations and NPCs and see which elements hook the players most.  If the players seem to respond well to the corrupted British spy program, that can become the center of the campaign.  If the players are more interested in the descendants of the characters of the original Bram Stoker novel, the focus can shift to them.  Similarly, the primary antagonists can be largely human organizations (corrupted by Dracula or simply corrupted by the opportunity to control him) or predominately supernatural (packs of ghouls, werewolves, the spawn of Dracula, etc.).  The choice is up to you and your players.

The result is a sand-lot approach to a campaign.  This is not unlike the sprinkling of different hooks throughout the campaign sections of the core Strange and Numenera books.  The improvisational campaign simply collects a large series of hooks, develops many of them -- many more than you will use in any single campaign -- and presents several options for designing a related campaign.

I could see using this as part of a Strange campaign.  Maybe I will discuss the conversion of material from Nights Black Agent (a Gumshoe system game) to the Cypher System, but for now it is enough to note that any such conversion would be simple.  The nature of the material hews towards a grounded espionage oriented game.  Many of the potential antagonists are government espionage organizations, organized crime organizations, etc.  The various locations and potential encounters involve a heavy amount of investigation and assume some care to avoid raising too much attention.  I might call this "discrete pulp."  The players are assumed to be competent (maybe just super-human) but not free of all concerns with antagonizing the British government, Russian mobsters, etc.

The approach is certainly influencing the way I am work on my own campaign development -- and possibly my super-secret project. I often ask myself what sorts of material I really need to run the The Strange.  My planning involves creating evocative encounters, a basic narrative outline, and some themes.  That is all I need to plan for The Strange -- and that is almost exactly what this sort of improvisational campaign product is intended to provide.  I look forward to digging into it more and reporting back on what more I learn.  

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